Clean Up Your Damn System Tray!

In the Windows operating system, the “System Tray” is the collection of small icons that appears on the far right side of the taskbar. These icons generally represent programs that are currently running in the background. An icon in the system tray could be used to inform the user that a certain program is running, or offer the user a quick way to change certain settings. I have found that the number of icons visible in a certain computer’s system tray gives a surprisingly accurate measurement of the well-being of the computer, as well as the degree of negligence and/or inexperience of the computer’s owner.

Theorem 1: The well-being of the computer is inversely proportional to the number of visible system tray icons.

Let’s now have a look at some of the programs that actually put their icon in the system tray. Some of these programs may very well prove to be useful. However, the vast majority of them are utterly useless, and sometimes even malicious.
The following is a screen shot of an actual computer (running Windows 98) from a user who has generously contributed to this study. Let’s examine some of the icons seen here, and comment on the worst offenders in this category:

  • McAfee Virus Scan — Okay, this one may be useful to a certain extent. However, my feelings toward antivirus programs deserve an article of their own, so I’ll leave this alone for now.
  • ATI Display Settings — honestly, how many times a day do you find yourself changing your display resolution or color depth? I suppose this may have been useful in the old days when certain programs (especially games) required a certain color depth, but we’re well beyond those constraints now.
  • SETI-at-home — While a noble and conceptually fascinating project, the SETI-at-home effort has produced absolutely no results and, so far, has been a total waste of resources. SETI-at-home was one of the first large-scale distributed computing projects, where CPU time of any available computer in the world could be contributed toward solving a single problem. However, now there are many other distributed computing projects that serve much more important purposes, like modeling protein folding in order to find possible cures for diseases.
  • MSN Messenger — An instant messaging application that is quite unpopular (compared to AIM and Yahoo Messenger). And yet Windows launches it by default even if you don’t have an MSN account, and it takes considerable effort to disable it completely. Notice that this user also has both Yahoo Messenger and AIM running alongside. It should not be necessary to run more than one instant messaging client. If it is absolutely necessary to use both (if you have friends on the different networks who simply refuse to switch), then download a program that supports both protocols simultaneously, like Gaim or Trillian.
  • Adaptec DirectCD — This allows you to drag and drop files onto a rewritable disc and burn a disc with the click of a button. However, Windows XP now allows you to do this natively.
  • WeatherBug — This program runs in the background and shows you the local temperature, absolutely free! Oh, and, every few minutes or so, it will pop up an advertisement that you didn’t ask for, also absolutely free! And good luck uninstalling it!
  • Bonzi Buddy — The mildly amusing, but increasingly annoying virtual monkey-companion who can read your e-mail aloud, among a multitude of other activities. Of course, every once in a while, he’ll kindly present you with an unsolicited online advertisement or a very special offer. He also tracks your internet activity, and then customizes the advertisements he displays based on your browsing habits! Sign me up!
  • WinAmp Agent — WinAmp is an extremely useful and simple tool for playing music files. But is it really necessary to have a portion of it running in the background at all times? When you want to play a song, launch Winamp. When you’re done, close it. Who cares if Winamp takes a few milliseconds longer to load if the Agent isn’t running? It’s better than having the Agent continually consume system resources.
  • Mouse Properties — for God’s sake, how often do you need to alter your mouse properties? Sure, it’s cute to change around your mouse cursor so that it looks like a little dinosaur or a piece of cheese being eaten by a mouse. But it gets old rather quickly.

Serial Mouse “Driver” / Tester

If you have a Microsoft-compatible serial mouse lying around and want to play around with it or test whether it works, this program I wrote in Borland C++Builder opens the serial port and actually reads information from the mouse. You can track the mouse’s position, and even patch the serial mouse into the Windows mouse driver (sort of). Give it a try. If you want, here’s the source code. There’s also a version for Visual Basic.